I Don’t Want to Get Big and Bulky: Fitness Marketing and its Effect on Women

I imagine people are laughing when they see me in the coffee shop, propped back reading Women’s Health or Fitness magazine.

I’m perfectly okay with this as I have my reasons for maintaining a subscription to said magazines.  It’s not for the training or nutritional advice, nor is it to improve my sex life.  I mainly read these magazines because I don’t quite understand women.

No male does.  However, I long to get a glimpse of what’s going on between their ears, at least from a fitness standpoint.

On the other hand, one thing I do understand quite well is marketing and sales psychology.

I also know how to write a training program and give someone dietary advice that’s inline with their goals.

What I’m finding in the magazines, on TV, and on the products we continually see in the retail outlets, are not necessarily in line with what it takes to get great results – especially when it comes to the female physique.

There are a few problems that I hope to shed some light on today with this article.

  1. Resistance/Strength training should be a must in any female’s fitness routine who wishes to alter her body composition for the better.  If the goal is to maintain a lean(er), “toned’ physique, some type of resistance training is a MUST.  We’ll discuss what is best and what is awful later on.
  2. Most traditional forms of media are either rehashing old, outdated information OR are pushing your emotional triggers to BUY, instead of making a rational decision.  In these cases, making the sale is of far greater importance than what the product can actually do for you.

Females and Strength Training

Maybe I’m making a bold statement here, but one of the biggest misconceptions, to this day, are how women shouldn’t be lifting heavy weights.  It’s not uncommon to see females in the gym lifting tiny dumbbells and doing lots of cardio.

Why is this?  It’s simple – they’ve all been told that lifting heavy weights is reserved for the boys and if they do as we do, they’ll look like us.

So, if they don’t want to look like us, they should clearly do the opposite, right?


While heavy weights, combined with a hearty diet is often the recipe for males to pack on size and  muscle mass, it’s not a similar situation for females.  And the reason is because of our hormonal profiles.  I’ve written on this before, but it bears to be repeated.

A female produces a tiny fraction of the testosterone that a male does.  Since testosterone is the main determinant of the ability to grow in size and strength, it only makes sense that someone with much lower levels (women) will never achieve the same size as someone with much more of it (men).

The only way this is remotely possible is through exogenous use of testosterone and other anabolic compounds (steroids, shhh!).

Of course, there are outliers – the occasional female who has slightly more testosterone than the average woman, but they’re few and far between.  These are usually girls who are typically drawn more so to athletics and training, and thus have more muscular bodies as a result.

But even then, I don’t find those bodies to be unattractive or even “bulky” as one might describe a male’s body.

I have various females on strength training routines, some of them actually lift more than many men, and none of them possess a physique anywhere near the resemblance of a “bulky” man.

Despite the evidence pointing against a female’s ability to get jacked, false information is always being spread.

Just the other day as I was getting my haircut, the girl taking care of me started asking me fitness questions.  Here is a paraphrase of what she said:

“Okay, so I’m trying to slim down – I was told NOT to do any heavy lifting as it will make me really bulky.  I was told to focus on high reps and really low weight.”

Now, I don’t know who told her this, but they were likely someone who heard that heavy weights are responsible for making people huge, thus it would do the same for a female.

As I look at my phone, I have a text message from one of my girlfriends that reads:

“Squats with 10lb weights – how many sets of 12 should I do?”

My response was:

“You should be lifting heavy weights – 5×5.”

I didn’t hear back from her so I have no idea what she’s doing now.

Problem is, it’s this type of misinformation that forever keeps ladies from their physique goals. It’s this exact thinking that will keep women on the treadmills and lifting the silly, pink dumbbells forever with no results to show for it.

So who’s to blame?  I blame trainers and fitness folk who don’t stay up to date with current information, but I mostly blame the world of fitness marketing.  Why?  Just check some of these images below.

All the way up to 8lbs!

4lbs of walking weights!

Great Marketing.  Mediocre Results.

So what do you notice about each image?  There is a fit female, with an attractive physique, and they’re all using weights you could lift before you could speak.

Now ladies, do you really think those baby weights will produce the stimulus responsible for the firm, hard body you long for?  If you’re answer is no, then you’re clearly “in-the-know.”

From here, I think we can agree there’s obviously a disconnect between what actually works, and what is being pimped.  These products are merely made to sell.

You’re better off hiring a coach, learning the basic barbell lifts and following a tried-and-true strength training routine as opposed to wasting your dough on cheap gimmicks.
So what exactly is going on here?

It’s pretty simple.  Humans are visual beings and every good marketer knows this.  It’s why every one of those super long sales pages (that actually converts) is FULL of before and after pictures.  Why?  If we can see the results for ourselves, it provides an element of proof that whatever they are selling actually works.

In all my studies, testimonials are by far, one of the best marketing tools ever.

Now, it doesn’t really matter if the testimonials are real or fabricated – if they are believable to us, we’re more apt to buy.

Heck, even if they don’t seem totally believable, the more you see, the more convinced you become.  It’s why those sales pages are SO LONG.

As you will notice in one of the images, Jillian Michaels is holding a few small dumbbells.  What we have here is the celebrity factor.  Jillian is known around the world as a super trainer.  She’s trained stars.  She’s been on the TV show, The Biggest Loser.  So in most people’s eyes, for having such stardom, she must know her stuff, right?

Well maybe, maybe not.  I’m not here to judge her on what she’s doing or how she’s getting results with others, but I bet she doesn’t have her clients using baby weights.  And I imagine she is likely not using these weights in her own training, either.

The problem here is not affecting the informed fitness pro or even the avid fitness enthusiast.  It’s hurting the ladies who simply want to lose some weight, improve their appearance and get fit again.

Because this type of information tends to sell much better than what I or many other fitness folk might prescribe, the ladies who need our information most will probably never find it.

They’ll continue doing pump sets with 5lb dumbbells and will never achieve the figure they want – they’ll never get close to Jillian’s physique because that shape requires resistance training of some sort, period.

And Then We Have Plain Bad Advice

For one, if you click on this image (opens in a new window), you’ll see a snippet of a magazine article interviewing Jennifer Aniston.  When asked about her workout, she explains the advice her Pilates instructor gave her about post-workout nutrition.  Quote directly from the article:

“And my Pilates instructor said if you don’t want to build muscle, wait about an hour to eat after you work out so your muscles are leaning as opposed to building.”

Okay, so first I’m asking myself “what in the world does ‘leaning’ mean in this context?”

I get what she is saying, but the ideology is flawed.  After many conversations with Alan Aragon, it seems that as long as calorie goals (protein and macro requirements) are met by the end of the day, nutrient timing is not as big of a deal as we once thought.

You often here the phrase ‘long and lean’ muscles as opposed to ‘bulky’ when describing the look a female often aspires to.  And here’s the problem.  We cannot physically change the length of our muscles too much.

Sure, some stretching will make you more limber and restricting movement for long periods will cause muscles to shorten, but never to the point of making a drastic visual difference.

So the idea of creating ‘long and lean’ muscles is just bad terminology BUT it sounds great to women because that is, after all, what most want – that hard, lean physique.

I don’t know exactly what she meant.  Maybe she is caught up in the old idea that if you wait an hour to eat after intense exercise, you’ll be burning more body fat from EPOC (Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption).

However, we’ve since learned that the difference in calorie burn is minimal, and in my opinion, some better advice would be to simply take care of your post workout nutrition with a few pieces of fruit and some lean protein (some animal or a shake is fine with me) as soon as you get a chance to eat.

However, I am not training Jennifer Aniston, so perhaps I need to take some tips from her Pilates instructor…

Traditional Media and Marketing

As you will see on this cover, there are plenty of headlines that will get many women to buy.  I mean, who doesn’t want a “toned tummy, arms and thighs in 20 minutes”? Who doesn’t want to “kiss cellulite goodbye?”

What I love about traditional media in the women’s fitness genre is the stellar formula.  Great headlines + an awesome picture of a half naked lady + great ad copy = $$$$.  Now don’t go quoting me on that one, but it’s seems pretty standard to me.

While we don’t have a ton of research on metabolism, nutrient requirements for athletes, etc, we have enough to help us draw some conclusions and most importantly, get positive results.

I usually thumb through these magazines in hopes of finding some amazing advice from a new up and coming author, attempting to bring the masses up to date but I’m always disappointed.

In fact, in the June issue of Women’s Health, it happened again.  I started reading an article and was getting pretty excited – all up until the end.  So I want to break it down, give you the gist of it, and why I wish they’d let me write for them – just once!  Give me once chance!

So the article’s title was Eat More, Weigh Less! It was actually one of the cover stories.  It consisted of 5 steps to No Cravings, No Crankiness, Just Results!

Here’s the breakdown with my thoughts.

  1. I will eat it if it grows on a tree, or a bush or a stalk or a vine. They’re main premise here was to get people focused on eating whole, natural foods such as fruits and veggies as opposed to processed junk.  They’re advice was to eat these foods first in your meals due to the satiety factor.While I still see people overeating from not tracking their intake, I don’t think it’s terrible advice.  Everyone should be eating more fruits and veggies as opposed to processed options.
  2. I will eat protein with every meal and snack. I particularly liked this one, too.  Any female looking to change her body composition for the better should be getting a steady dose of protein.  For one, any intense fitness routine is going to increase our protein requirements.The only part I didn’t care too much for were their suggested requirements.They stated one should consume .54-1g of protein per pound of body weight.  I would err on the higher side, simply because one  who is active, and especially those lifting weights will need more along the lines of 1g per pound of body weight depending on their goals.
  3. I will eat before and after exercise. This is just common sense here.  Sandwiching your workout sessions with a dose of protein and carbohydrates is a great way to ensure adequate recovery.
  4. I will become a salad savant. This one falls in line with rule #1.  We should all be eating more leafy greens.  Not only for the micronutrients, but for the satiety they can provide when looking to lose body fat and improve our body composition.
  5. I will never have the world’s worst breakfast. To them, the worst breakfast was no breakfast at all.  They even made a claim “regularly skipping breakfast increases your risk for obesity by 450 percent.”  I don’t know where they got that from, but it’s pretty outlandish.The main thing I hate about this part is when they say “if you don’t eat (breakfast), you lower your metabolism, starve your muscles, and wind up taking in most of your calories late in the day.

In fact, in another article titled How To Get Jennifer Aniston’s Bikini Bod (published 2/8/2010), under the diet section, it reads:

To replicate a lean body — especially in your 40s — you’d have to eat an “extremely clean diet” that is high in protein and consists of many small meals to keep the metabolism going, Di Palma says.

And this is where I wish we could get some recent research to explain how skipping breakfast (or any other meal) is not as detrimental as we once thought.  I’ve been practicing intermittent fasting (where I don’t eat until about 12 – 1 p.m.) for a few years now and have never experienced any negative effects on my metabolism to date.  It’s clearly stated in research that resting energy expenditure (metabolism) can even increase with short-term fasting.

Another reason I wish this would stop being published is because of what it tends to do to folks’ psyche.  They read that we should NEVER skip breakfast because it will be detrimental to our health/metabolism.

So, it often puts us in a place of fear – the fear that if we don’t do something a certain way, we can’t get the results we want so badly.   I live in a world with very few absolutes.  Why?  It’s because there are always many ways to skin a cat.  Why choose only one method when another one, that works just as well, can be both beneficial and easy to follow?

So What Now?

If I haven’t spurred you to think a little more about how marketing affects you as a female after 2500 words of my incessant banter, then I’m not sure if anything will.

But this is what I hope to leave you with.  Marketing plays a huge role in your decisions on a daily basis.  Most of the models gracing the covers of women’s fitness publications are doing much more than the occasional 20-minute workout to achieve the physique they have.

I know ladies who are busting their tails in the gym 4-5 days per week to achieve the same look you see on the covers.  I have written programs for them so I know exactly what they’re training entails.  If I haven’t worked with them, I know who their trainers are and what they have them doing.

There is no secret – the physiques gracing the covers are a product of progressive strength training routines, not 10 minutes of 5lb dumbbell curls followed by an hour of the elliptical.  Some of these girls are very strong and will never be as bulky a male.

So the next time you pick up that magazine or get ready to buy a product with a pretty figure promoting it, step back and ask yourself – “is this really what I need or am I giving in to awesome copywriting and a dashing physique?”

Oh and if you feel the need to ask questions or send some hate mail, contact me anytime.

The Fitness Consumers Advocate
JC Deen

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  1. says

    I’m apparently very late on this post and your related marketing one but I just wanted to say that I really love reading about stuff like this.

    You can kind of see from my blog that I’ve been posting almost exclusively about fitness marketing and the most popular tactics used in the various forms of media. Mostly focused on women as well since that’s honestly where 75% of the effort goes. (when it comes to magazines anyway)

    One of the most interesting things I’ve found that I can’t explain is that in women’s advertising, the word “exercises” isn’t used – “moves” is the term used almost exclusively. Whereas for men’s advertising they don’t shy away from “exercise” “workout” “training” etc.

    Also the phrase “Lose Your Belly” was used 4 separate times in 3 months by women’s magazines covers from August -> November. That’s a fun fact.

    Anyway, I really enjoyed seeing someone else write about these topics. Do you know of anyone else who talks about popular fitness advertising / media?

    • says

      I’m glad you liked this. I really love reading about marketing, too. I don’t know anyone else talking about fitness marketing, but then again, I don’t pay much attention to the fitness space these days.

  2. Lisa says

    I spent most of my teenage and adult years doing every new diet and exercise video, light weights and high reps. I joined at gym 6 months ago, got myself some professional help and started lifting heavy weights 3-4 times per weeks. I’ve already started seeing amazing results. I’m 43 and for the first time in my life actually on track to achieving the body I want. JC is right, women need to stop reading the hype and doing every fad exercise/diet regime advertised in women’s magazines. Ladies – join a gym, get good professional help and be prepared to put in the long term effort.

  3. kara says

    Very interesting. I will be reading this: http://www.jcdfitness.com/2010/02/the-muscle-building-guide-for-women/ and look forward to the next one.

    I have recently started CrossFit after 2 high risk pregnancies and through that I was introduced to lifting. In my quest to rebuild my core muscles and the rest of me I started CrossFit and have become quite interested in lifting. I find it quite fun and enjoy the challenge of trying to go up a few pounds. The box I go to offers lifting classes which I have started going to as well. While I can’t lift very much at the moment I am to be able to do some decent lifting by the end of the year.

    I am finding it extremely frustrating as I was very fit and sporty before the pregnancies and being forced to lie in bed for months was torture but also robbed me of my muscle mass, my muscle tone and much of my flexibility. We take it for granted when we have it but it is a B*TCH to get back.

  4. Heather says

    I really enjoyed this article, I’ve recently starting lifting and LOVE it. But it was a long journey…always wanting to lose the weight, never getting good advice, hours of cardio, 1200 calories a day.

    I really wish that more people understood the concept that strength training is an important part of any successful workout plan. Especially one in which you want your whole body composition to change.

    But, I feel like it was kind of a teaser…yes…all the above is true…don’t listen to the nasty marketing people…only sweat and hard work will get you where you want to be. But do you have any suggestions especially for women?? Any articles on that subject?

  5. Fin says

    This is a great article. I’ve been looking for an article about working out and the whole craze with the ‘lean and toned, but skinny’. I found most articles I read sounded like rubbish, even though I don’t know much science to it. All I knew was I am a small female 5ft 3 at 98lbs and have been looking to gain muscle strength and maybe some weight. All the articles I read talked about ‘loosing weight (when the person isn’t all that big to begin with) and ‘toning it up’ ” Nothing ever talked about gaining strength in anything, which never made any sense to me at all. If you’re going to exercise for the benefit of your body why not get some goodness from it, not just melting away that belly roll?

    So…do you have any tips for a small person looking to build some muscle and gain some strength, maybe some endurance as well?

  6. Bolivar says

    I read this article word for word. To sum it up briefly: In my 20’s – I did zero weight lifting because I thought it would bulk me up. 30’s – I did little bitty weights because (like it was demonstrated above) THOSE weights came with the box and I assumed I would get the same results as I saw on the box (dumb!). In my 40’s – due to a medical condition, I could either take drugs at $200 a month or figure out how to incease my bone density another way. I chose the latter and FORCED myself to start liting heavier weights because I was told it would be great for my medical condition.

    My weight June 2012 was 162lb at 5’2″ / this after having worked out 17 (seventeen) years five days a week and having subscribed to Fitness / Shape for YEARS!!

    Started weight liting (seriously weight lifting) June 2012. I prayed to lose 7 pounds. Now, January 2012: I am down 20 pounds and my body figure has TAKEN OFF!! Is it perfect No = still workin’ on the abs. But the rest of me is so rock solid that my doctor couldn’t scan my leg due to all my muscle and sent me instead for an MRI.

    We have been sold a crock of you-know-what by the media. I am upset that I bought it (literally / figuratively) for so many years. I never worked with a weight above 8 pounds – EVER – until this past summer. I didn’t even know I had permission!! And all those years at gyms I allowed my fear to get the best of me and stayed away from the guys in the weight room.

    Today – I am in WITH the guys. The women, I haven’t seen 15 different women in the weight room yet – it’s always the same ones of us lifting the HEAVY weights. Others come and go for 10 minutes at a time and leave after doing a couple dumbells. I have a very athletic physique and figured out I bulk up pretty darn fast. My legs are not “lean” and my shoulders are built. I LOVE IT!!! I accept that is the body size for me – it is my path of least resistance to be me and not a magazine cover.

    My quick stats: June 2012 I could squat 15 pounds. Today, I squat 60 pounds. June 2012 I arm curled 5 pounds and today 17 pounds. June 2012 I could bench press 15 pounds and today 55 pounds. June 2012 I could leg press 40 pounds – today 100 (you read that right) pounds. I use free weights or machines that are NOT cable assisted.

    This article makes me cry if only for the fact that I wasted so much time trying to create a body that is not genetically designed for me – and so have other women. We are not a photoshop project. My ideal shape will never grace the cover of a mass maket “womens health” magazine – but it would an athletic magazine. Let’s see them stick MY current weights in a box and market that!

    This blog is the best thing on the net!! Thank you for the time in writing it and allowing me to add my long two cents.

  7. Alyona says

    I would add that the image of ‘healthy’/’fit’/attractive woman is somewhat too thin now, if not anorexic. Look at their arms, legs etc. Sometimes, on the contrary, they have such a sixpack, that you just see it’s not possible without, well, juice. Christine Beauchamp aka thecookiemonster (wordpress blog) have written a lot about feminity, being fit and marketing images. I suggest you read this if you haven’t yet.

    As for myself, weighting heavy just changed my life, helped me to beat anorexia and probably some other inner demons. I think it’s a long romance.

    • says

      I think you’re generalizing with the first few statements.

      Good for you on creating a positive experience through strength training. :)

  8. says

    I think the message is slowly getting through. I am often seeing more and more women performing heavy lifts and olympic lifts and looking much better for it. Women who use Crossfit are a really good example, just watch a few youtube videos. Nice article, good job :)


  1. […] If you’re not doing any strength training program, you should start doing now to achieve that lean and toned look. You must have seen your favorite Hollywood celebs who have transformed their physique from flabby to lean and you probably think that they have put on tremendous amount of muscle mass but the truth is they probably add some muscle mass but they surely have lost a lot of body fat that’s why they appear more muscular and toned. This applies to both and women. Women shouldn’t fear lifting weights because training with weights will not make them big and bulky. […]

  2. […] To all the females out there: you are NOT going to get “big and bulky” from weightlifting. This is fitness marketing hype. But you WILL get lean, as long as your diet is right. Don’t listen to celebrity trainers (with no exercise science credentials) who say never to lift anything heavier than 3 pounds. I could beat this point into the ground, but check out this article on fitness marketing and its effect on women. […]

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